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I’ve been meaning to comment on Thira Bhusal’s piece on the growing anarchy in the Nepali Student Unions. Such anarchy is no surprise to me or anyone else who follows Nepali politics.
This article opens with a summary of the lethargy amongst the three largest student unions. Neither the All Nepal Free Student Union (ANNFSU (Akhil)), (the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Lenninist (CPN-UML) student wing) nor the Nepal Student Union (NSU) (the Nepali Congress (NC) student wing) has a functioning central committee. The CPN-UML dissolved the ANNFSU (Akhil) due to lack of leadership on issues ranging from financial embezzlement to infighting; they are currently planning for a general convention. The NSU central committee was dissolved in April 2011 after the president, Pradip Paudel, resigned because he was unable to establish any centralized leadership between the two previous NSU factions that reunited at the end of 2007. Thus far, the NSU has failed to convene a general convention. And the third union, All Nepal Independent Union-Maoist (ANNISU), has been faltering up until the factional split of their mother party, the CPN-Maoists, and now these factions are engaged in a low level turf war all the way down to the campus level.
Bhusal argues that since the post-2008 Constituent Assembly elections, student politics has been marred by hooliganism, financial embezzlement, criminal activity, and campus clashes, causing their reputation to decline. However, for the public this is nothing new. Rather, it is just an issue of degrees and whether the students’ activities are labeled as cynical politicking or ‘just’ activism. The actual tactics are quite similar; it is just a matter of what ends they serve. Is there a difference between distributing funds to students who were injured in clashes with police during the state of emergency OR financially compensating those injured in campus clashes with other student unions? Is there a difference between burning tires and effigies and destroying government vehicles on the streets to demand the reinstatement of democracy OR destroying campus property and detaining campus administration when Free Student Union orders are defied? Of course there is a difference in the intent, but it is not as stark as Bhusal frames it in this article. Instead, I encourage people to view the student unions and their members in the complexity that they embody: a mix of idealism and opportunism, varying from person to person and institution to institution. This is due in part to the increasing professionalization of politics in the post-1990 democratic era; however, the dynamic emerges from their historical relationship with the political parties. What the current scenario of growing anarchy in the student unions demonstrates is that the opportunistic elements of their political calculation are overshadowing their idealism. Nonetheless, my experience in speaking to a number of student cadres across the political spectrum is that political idealism is central to their personal narrative, which they frame within the larger historical narrative of ongoing democratic struggle.
It is important to keep in mind that the student unions have no straightforward venue in which to emphasize and articulate their political idealism at this time. This is due in part to the structural relationship student politics has with mainstream politics. Students have been the vanguard of political movements since Jayatu Sanskritim Andolan, which defied the Rana regime in 1947. During the Panchayat era, Free Student Union politics served as a proxy for multi-party democracy since their mother parties were banished underground and their campus activities were protected by the 1971 Supreme Court decision. As Bhusal notes, student leaders were the public face of the party, not the underground the political leaders. The student movements since then have fueled historic leaps in the struggle to institute and protect multi-party democracy. (Their movement of 1979 led to the 1980 national referendum, they were key institutional players in the 1990 People’s Movement, and in 2004 they radicalized the discourse of the political parties’ Movement Against Regression.)
Student organizations’ reputation as the political vanguard is based on these historical contributions. Student activists pride themselves as being at the forefront, making radical political demands, while standing on political ground gained by the generation before them. This picture of a sign at Padma Kenya campus declaring itself a republican zone is a good example. Student activists hung it in reaction to the no-protest zone directive instituted by the king’s government in early spring of 2004.
During this time it was only the Maoists and the students who were making the demand for democratic republic (ganatantra). The mainstream political parties were still demanding the reinstitution of people’s democracy (loktantra), which did explicitly advocate the overthrow of the monarchy.
The ways in which student activists vocalize their radical stance is strategic, positioning them in a political field where they ultimately they have little power to influence things beyond the streets. It is no surprise that they have little autonomy from their mother parties. And this produces tension to varying degrees, depending on the political ideology and internal organization of each party. The students, nonetheless, recognize that their relevance hinges on their ability to protest effectively. Political party leaders rely on the students’ protests to keep the voting public invested. Each party has youth leaders who critique the endemic problems of party politics and give a face to the future of the party. The party leaders exploit the students’ position as much as they sideline them. The experience of being sidelined motivates the students to distinguish themselves; however, they do nothing without the tacit agreement of some faction of party leadership. For example, when the CPN-UML chose to join the king mandated Deuba government in 2004, the ANNFSU (Akhil) students stopped participating in the Movement against Regression and watched the rest of the student unions continue protests in Ratna Park from the roof of rato ghar (their union office).
The dynamic between the student unions and political parties is a symbiotic relationship, and must be recognized as such. This is why student organizations, in Bhusal’s words, “have utterly failed in creating any social, political or educational movements in the country” over the last few year. They organize when multi-party democracy is threatened or to whip up opposition-support for their mother party’s agenda. While the parties are struggling to draft a constitution and rule by consensus, there has been little interest for the student unions to launch any ideologically driven campaigns. The political parties have had enough difficulty maintaining unity in the peace process. They are not about to condone their students wreaking havoc on the streets. And while it is true that the lack of organization within the student unions has kept them from launching any effective norm-oriented reforms like fighting against student fee increases or petrol price hikes, the risk of such movements spirally out of control has to be considered as well. Student activists are being discouraged from organizing anything that could derail the national peace process. This anxiety is based in history. For example, it was during a petrol hike protest when Devi Ram Paudel died in Bhutwal, which in turn sparked nationwide campus uprisings that led to Lok Bahadur Chand’s resignation in 2003.
Political Opportunity Bubble: Groupism & Factional Feuds
Bhusal further attributes student union anarchy to groupism and factional feuds, which has been increasing in all political parties. Although factionalism occurred during the underground years of the Panchayat, particularly in the infamous and multiple splits in the Communist party lineage, there were not as many political leaders vying for a coterie of cadres. The reason being was that there was little opportunity for underground activists to amass the resources and cultivate the influence needed to command sycophantic loyalty from students. This patronage dynamic has deep roots in government administration dating back to the Rana regime and carried through the Panchayat era. After multi-party democracy was instituted in 1990, the opportunity bubble ballooned for the democratic parties as they began to govern. The number of appointed positions under party leaders and ministers multiplied. And with the dissolution and reconstitution of government administration every few years since 1990, ministerial leadership has not stagnated but changes with each new government. Thus, the forging of political fiefdoms has not only been strategic for party leaders, but it has become important to the survival and progression for young ambitious cadres to advance through the ranks. Like any industry, party politics is pragmatic in how it survives and thrives.
As I noted in SINHAS, there are no longer two generations in politics, the new and the old generation, with the old bringing the new under its wing. Since multi-party democracy, there are at least four generations of people at different ranks waiting to progress—the ranks people inhabit often don’t correlate to their age: student leaders in their late thirties, junior leaders in their sixties, and octogenarians holding leadership till their death. This trend has created “micro-categories of emergence and waiting” in Nepali politics (2009: 62). People invest in each other in order to maintain a central presence and garner political capital through “alliance and reliance amongst generations” (2012: 62). Student activists begin at the entry level. In order to move up, one must be cultivated by a student leader who is supported by a party leader who has loyal followers in every echelon of the party ranks. These followers are also beholden to one another, hence the groupism. Affiliating oneself with a party faction is common sense to student who takes politics seriously. Factionalism serves a purpose in the mechanisms of party politicking that is, as Bhusal argues, problematic; however this opportunism is necessary to survive in the party machine. This is nothing new; it has just become more entrenched since multi-party democracy. In my writings on party organization and ideology, I argue that institutional practices and party culture reinforce the degree to which a party (and by default their student union) is a group of factions or a united front. Since I have done this analysis, the Maoists have also dealt with the bittersweet reality of factionalism, as politics has become a professional opportunity for their cadres after they joined the mainstream ranks.
Groupism, factionalism, splits, and mergers in the mainstream political parties are what have led to the “mushrooming of central committees” in the student unions, another attributing factor to anarchism noted by Bhusal. The Nepal Student Union (NSU) central committee is a case in point. In 2007 everyone knew that the Koirala faction of Nepali Congress (NC) and the Deuba faction of NC were going to reunite. They had to in order to ensure a substantial number of constituent assembly seats in the 2008 election; it was just a matter of when and what the terms of reunification would be. Thus, both NSU (Koirala) and NSU (Democratic) were eager to conduct their national conventions so they could establish leadership through democratic mandate. Both Pradip Paudel’s (NSU(K)) administration and Kalyan Gurung’s (NSU(D)) administration felt justified claiming their positions after reunification; the haggling went from the central committee down to campus committees. Bhusal quotes Paudel saying, “In my central committee, there were 10 vice-presidents, 4 general secretaries and 18 assistant general secretaries.” This task did not simply resemble herding cats, but herding disgruntled cats. Many members on this unwieldy central committee were disappointed that Paudel was appointed president over Gurung. What is the best way to register dissent over mother party intervention outside your control? Noncooperation, and this is what Paudel contended with during his frustrating term. NSU is not the only cumbersome committee, the ANNFSU (Akhil)’s central committee, which has 354 members, a 53-member secretariat and 11 office bearer members. Since the 2002 reunification of the CPN (UML) and CPN (ML), the party landscape has been pockmarked with tensions between political lineages jockeying for influence, which has inevitably impacted ANNFSU (Akhil).
Over-bloated committees are a result of each faction needing a place at the table. There are two factors here. The first is the expectation that political leaders provide positions to their juniors for services rendered. The second is that the political leaders are invested in having their acolytes serve in their stead so they can maintain a presence in all spheres of influence. This is a self-replicating dynamic in the name of internal democracy.
Source of Anarchy: Professionalization of Politics
Bhusal duly notes that the students blame their mother parties for promoting chaos in the student wings. But this analysis needs to be extended a bit further. The unraveling of the student organizations is indicative of the state of their mother parties. The lack of internal cohesiveness within the parties themselves reverberates outwards, having impact down to the campus level. Is this productive? No, it is neither productive on the national level nor the campus level. However, it is important to place the current state of the student unions in the proper sociohistorical context from which unions developed: sister organizations to political parties who have oscillated like a pendulum between governing and andolan (political movement).
The student leaders with whom I worked were quite critical of the deeply entrenched party intervention into the student unions (all of the student unions’ constitutions set parameters to curb mother party intervention, although there are many clever loopholes to overcome these statutes). Nevertheless, those with ambition have acquiesced to what I refer to as “alliance and reliance” to progress up the political chain of command. As long as student unions are linked to the professionalization process of party politics and the parties invest in the campuses to ensure their survival for one more generation, then the Free Student Unions will never be able to undergo the reforms that Dr. Kedar Methema suggests at the end of Bhusal’s argument. There is no incentive for internal reform; in fact, there is a lot to lose beyond a reserve army of foot soldiers for the inevitable andolan to come and political progeny, including oversight of construction and infrastructure contracts, access to student fees, and around the clock oversight of faculty and campus administration. If reform of the Free Student Union occurs, it will come from outside of politics. The ANNISU (Maoist)’s grand claim to bring reform in 2007 is a case in point. As their mother party transitioned from revolution to mainstream politics, they too have succumbed. Until the parties move ahead with consistent governing or are again in need of defending their multiparty democratic state, then the student unions will continue to languish. The important thing to watch is what type of political leaders this post-conflict era of anarchy will produce. It will be interesting to see how they formulate idealism and opportunism into their political identity in comparison to the student activists from the People’s War/Movement Against Regression generation. In the meantime, don’t expect large-scale student movements (especially ones for noble causes) until their parties are in a position to condone them.
Sources cited through hyperlink:
Bhusal, Thira. 2013. “Anarchy vitiates beleaguered students’ organizations.” Rebulica, February 1, 2013.
Snellinger, A. 2012. “The Young Political Generation Today, Five Years Later.” Himalaya 31(1-2): .61-62:
—2011. Op-Ed, “Between Idealism And Political Savvy.” Kathmandu Post, November 9, 2011:
—2010. “The Repertoire of Scientific Organization: Ideology, Identity and the Maoist Student Union.” In Maoist Insurgency in Nepal: Revolution in the Twenty-first Century, edited by M. Lawoti and A. Mahara, pp. 73-91. London & New York: Routledge, South Asia Series.
—2009. ““Yuba, Hamro Pusta” (“Youth, Our Generation”): Youth and Generational Politics in Nepali Political Culture.” SINHAS (Studies in Nepali History and Society) 14(1): 39-66.
—2009 “Democratic Form: Conceptions and Practices in the Making of “New Nepal.” Sociological Bulletin (Journal of Indian Sociological Society) 58(1): 43-70.
—2007. “Student Movements in Nepal: Their Parameters and their Idealized Forms.” In Contentious Politics and Democratization in Nepal, edited by M. Lawoti, pp. 273-298. Delhi: Sage Publications.
—2006 “Commitment as an Analytic: Reflections on Nepali Student Activists Protracted Struggle.” PoLAR (Political and Legal Anthropology Review) 29(2): 351-364.
—2005 “A Crisis in Nepali Student Politics?: Analyzing the Gap between Politically Active and Non-Active Students.” Peace and Democracy in South Asia Journal 1 (2): 18-43.